Moral Responsibility I

Note: To mark my most recent return from the wilderness, i’ve divided this article into a few parts, as it was originally fairly long, and made a few slight changes.

The photo above shows animal activists in Queensland, Australia, wearing black shirts that read:

One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

This is an extract from Martin Luther King’s, Letter from Birmingham Jail.

It was written in 1963 after he was arrested for leading a protest in Birmingham, Alabama.

While activists are proud to display the words as evidence of their moral credentials, they’ve payed little regard to the rest of the letter.

Civil Disobedience and Direct Action

The activists have a hunger for direct action, promoted by their peers.

Yet they don’t appear to be clear on what it means.

It seems as though they characterize any dramatic event related to their cause as direct action.

Direct action, as its name implies, though, is a means of trying to achieve ends directly, without seeking to come to an agreement with authorities.

But what’s the direct action the activists are trying to achieve?

According to Vegan Rising, who helped arrange the Day of Action on 8 April, it was:

to raise awareness of the plight of animals used for food, clothing, animal testing and entertainment.

However this isn’t direct action, but indirect action.

Given the activists ultimately want animal liberation, the aim of “raising awareness” is an indirect way of attaining it.

That is, seeing or hearing about the Day of Action doesn’t achieve animal liberation directly.

“Raising awareness” is part of any step towards a goal, but it’s not direct action, which aims to realize an immediate, specific goal.

Further, “raising awareness” can be achieved by information campaigns, without any need for illegal activity.

Rescuing animals would be direct action, since activists achieve a direct goal related to their aims.

However Gary Francione points out that illegal actions aren’t necessary in this case, either, since they could be achieved by means such as giving homes to unwanted animals.

Even the activists concede that animal liberation, providing it’s achieved, is likely decades away.

So, other than actions such as rescuing animals, how could the activist’s actions be characterized if they aren’t direct action?

Civil disobedience.

While demonstrations can be legal or illegal, protestors don’t have the intention of being arrested.

Civil disobedience, on the other hand, defies laws openly, with either the object of being arrested or awareness that it may result.

Its purpose is to highlight a cause, and win support for it.